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Landing in Germany for my post-doc

Isabelle Arnoux is a neuroscientist. She left France for Germany to do her postdoc. She tells us about this experience and gives practical advice to prepare a mobility as a postdoc.



Article written by Isabelle Arnoux, PhD


How did you come to the idea of doing a postdoc?

When I was about to defend my PhD thesis, a fateful question was constantly coming: “what to do next?”.  After a bachelor on life science and a master in physiopathology, I started a PhD in neuroscience which lasted four years.

Personally, I was lucky to do my PhD in excellent conditions. The combination of this positive experience in the academic research with my passion for fundamental science strengthened my will to work in this domain. So, I decided to continue with a post-doc after my Ph.D.


How did you prepare yourself?

I set up an action plan to satisfy my expectations and to build a history matching my long-term objectives. First, I define my postdoctoral project based on my interest for some topics and technics that I wanted to learn. Following the advice of my Ph.D. supervisor, I took into account the news from my field, i.e. the neurosciences, to develop a project related to hot topics. This point could be important when you have to find a fellowship because institutes prefer to invest in an innovating and promising project compared to a subject which is already well covered. Next, you have to find where to carry out this project. For me, I aspired to acquire an international experience and to test another system of research. I wanted to discover how research works in another country, with its human relationships, the allocated resources… 


Why did you choose Germany?

I decided to move to Germany for family reasons and because this country massively invests in research and development. Germany offers multiple opportunities for early-career researchers to make a post-doc at the university, in non-academic research institutes (for example: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft and Helmholtz Association) or in industry.


How did the recruitment process go?

I sent out my applications to three laboratories in the Frankfurt area including universities and the Max-Planck institute. The heads of laboratory invited me to visit their laboratory and to give a seminar on my Ph.D. work. This was a great opportunity to meet face-to-face the PI, discuss a possible project, look at the equipments, and talk to the lab members…

These interviews are also a good occasion for the PI to evaluate the applicant’s skills and see whether he/she can fit in the lab.

After few interviews, I took the decision to join a team that I liked the most for its scientific and human qualities. I think that it’s important to be able to easily exchange with the colleagues, especially when you are new and you don’t really know how things work in the laboratory or in the institute.


How is your postdoctoral position funded?

On the financial side, my head of laboratory got a two-year European fellowship (from the "European Huntington's Disease Network") before my arrival so I didn’t have to look for my own funding before to join the lab, which allowed me to start immediately. This funding granted me a fellowship which has pro and cons. Indeed, the fellowships are not subject to income tax, meaning that there is less regulation, thus:

  • no tax is taken from what you get; 
  • you need to subscribe a social security from private and expensive agency.

Fortunately, this situation starts to change. Two years ago, the Max-Planck institute decided to offer a better situation to the post-doc by shifting post-doc fellows on salary contracts. However, it is still possible to get a fellow as post-doc funding but more and more post-doc have now access to salary contract. I had personally the chance to experience this progress; after two-years of being a recipient of a fellowship, I signed a contract with a German university which improved well my life quality.


What about your autonomy?

When I joined my lab for post-doc, the project that I will carry was already defined in the project submitted to obtain the European fellowship. Nevertheless, after my first results, I could explore promising directions that were not included in the initial project. I had the chance to work in an independent way and to regularly discuss my data with my supervisor and during the lab-/institute-meetings. I didn’t feel more pressure to publish my results compared to other places. But this depends on the situation of the laboratory. There is less pressure when main funding are secure and some projects are already running well.


What’s the difference between French and German laboratories?

In the everyday life, there are few differences. Apart from a weekly meeting with mandatory attendance for all members, the schedule is flexible and time dedicated to experimentation, analysis and interpretation are left to the discretion of each. As both countries are members of the European Union, the same rules decided by the European Commission must be applied concerning the safety in the laboratories, the use of biological models...

I found that in Germany :

  • there was less often the evaluation of laboratories;
  • post-docs can apply for more inter- and extra-university funding; 
  • in addition, the German system makes it easier for PhD students to find a job outside the academic world. Indeed, in Germany, few PhDs decide to continue in academic research and they can more easily orient themselves towards industry, consulting, project management...


As a conclusion?

My postdoc was very beneficial and I do not regret working in Germany. This abroad stay allowed me to experience another way of working and to meet wonderful people. This was a fulfilling and formative experience that I will recommend to future French graduates.

Disclaimer: I worked for the medical university center of Mainz but this opinion is my own and not those of my employer.

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